Sunday, February 26, 2012

Macdonald Redux And His Companions

Three writers of "occasional nonfiction" dazzled me when I was young.  I use the clumsy phrase because I can't think of a better: they did write nonfictioin and they did write for the occasion--meaning, usually, a publication date--although beyond that there is little that unites them.

One was EB White. I couldn't believe how he made it seem so effortless, his unobtrusive elegance and his droll, understated humor--remembered today for The Elements of Style and Charlotte's Web, but neither sufficient to capture the grace and ease of his best essays.Beginning a long tradition, some of his letters were the first thing I ever read aloud to Mrs. B.

The second  was Murray Kempton.  Wiki speaks of his "reputation for a quietly elegant prose style." Elegant, maybe, but "quiet" is not the way I remember him at all.  "Mordant" might do,  and he was certainly not above sarcasm. But he pursued his enthusiasms with the air of a happy warrior such that even his adversaries might give him a wink and a nod.  I never quite forgave him that he was such good buds with William F. Buckley; perhaps Buckley saw something that I did not see.

I suspect Kempton's best work is compassed in the collection Part of Our Time, available in a New York Review of Books imprint.  I can't think of any single book that better captures the flavor of homefront politics just before (and really, after) World War II: especially the bitter hopes, the agonizing self-deception and ultimately the doomed aspirations of the hard left, as it came of age in a world it didn't understand as well as it thoughtit did.

I am pleased to report that the third of my adolescent crushes now joins Kempton in the NYRB paperback line.  That would be Dwight Macdonald, here represented in Masscult and Midcult. If White largely sidesteps the polemical and Kempton plunges forward with a cheerful irony, MacDonald goes all in: he takes his enthusiasms and his aversions with a full-body embrace.  He could be just as funny as the other two, and he certainly does betray a streak of what passes for meanness.  You forgive him for it (if you do) because he obviously cared so deeply about the ideas and practices that he valued and wanted to protect.

On review, I'm pleased (and a bit surprised) that I feel no need to apologize for in remembering my childhood enthusiasms.  They all (I think the phrase belongs to White) stand solidly on the shelf and I suspect the wouldn't let you down as models for a new day.  Actually, now that I think of it, there are a couple of other icons that I cherished in those days about whom  I'm not so eager to speak now, but let's leave that for another time, shall we?  I'd happiest just to be seen in the company of these three.  

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